For the New Year

Conventional New Year’s resolutions don’t interest me much. At least not before careful consideration. Here, then, are suggestions to help reconfigure your 2018 list. They fit with the notion of the road not taken; or the direction not discovered. They are ideas to apply to your resolution-making, not a set of 2018 goals themselves:

  • Slash the resolutions you’ve already made! The more things on the list, the less likely you will attend to any of them. Achieving one or two life changes is remarkable enough. By reducing the number, you must decide what is important to you. The exercise has value by itself. When you consider the rest of the items below, keep this in mind.
  • Challenge your intuitions. Research by psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Jonathan Haidt suggests we quickly and intuitively come to our positions on matters as serious as politics and religion. According to Haidt, our brain acts as a kind of post hoc lawyer to defend instinct-driven moral beliefs and to fool us into thinking we reasoned out our convictions before arriving at them. Opening your mind to rejected ideas isn’t easy, but might enlighten you.
  • Don’t borrow trouble. Most of the things about which we worry never happen. Beyond taking proper precautions over what you control, worry is an anxiety-inducing waste. Yes, look both ways before you cross the street, plan your financial future, eat well and exercise, but don’t obsess. Consternation offers you nothing. Need help? Check out Craske and Barlow’s cognitive-behavioral program with your therapist or consider ACT (Acceptance & Commitment Therapy).
  • Realize the road is not always comfortable. A good life depends, in part, on knowing rocky and smooth stretches are unpredictable, inevitable, and usually temporary; all part of the highway we travel. Years ago I asked a wise financial advisor, Rick Taft, “How do you think stocks will do in the New Year?” His answer? “The market will fluctuate.” We could just as easily describe the inconstant fate awaiting us as an unavoidable fluctuation. No matter how smart you are, Fortuna (the Roman goddess of luck) spins her wheel. Good emotional shock absorbers are essential. Failures and tears add to the richness of our existence, however much you and I wish they could be avoided. You can learn from them, but only if you reflect on your life and keep a mirror handy for an occasional self-inspection.
  • Whose life are you living? The one you want or the one designed to make people love you and accept you? Evolution led our ancestors to concern themselves with reputation. Those who did increased their chances of survival and mating success. Like a number of the qualities evolution “selected for,” a preoccupation with public opinion can drive us crazy. Happiness is not the aim of evolution, only passing on your genes to a new generation. Once again, you might need to fight instinctive tendencies if you wish more than an average measure of satisfaction. Anticipation of the world’s disapproval leads one to display a false self and worry about being unmasked. Remember, this is your life (not theirs), and tuning out some of the voices who criticize is part of creating a strong and resilient personality.
  • Relationships are the most fulfilling thing on the planet. Try to have some! (Oops. I offered a goal).
  • Research suggests generosity to others is more fulfilling than spending your nickles on yourself. Similarly, experiences will offer more pleasure and more satisfying memories (say, of a vacation) than things like an attention-getting sweater or a hot car. Think back. Do you feel warm inside as you remember the set of wheels you had 10 years ago? I don’t need to think hard: until three years ago I was still driving the well-used car I bought in 2000! More on how to get from here to happiness from Daniel Gilbert:

It is said that “Comedy is tragedy plus time.” Not always, but often. Just so, maturity is achieved by surviving life challenges plus the passage of time, with some learning thrown in, of course. I’m not suggesting disappointment and mistreatment are equally distributed among us, but each of us knows suffering and, fair or not, it is in our interest to learn from the bad breaks.

All the above considered, here are ideas to push your sail boat off the dock and into the fresh waters of the New Year:

  • It is not that you have done wrong (you have), but whether you do more and more good.
  • It is not that you fall, but whether you get up.
  • It is not that you are a victim, but whether you are a survivor.
  • It is not that you make mistakes (you will), but whether you learn from them.
  • It is not that you get angry, but whether you get over it.
  • It is not that friends and lovers disappoint you, but whether you still believe in friendship and love.
  • It is not that you erred, but whether you took responsibility.
  • It is not that you take life seriously, but whether you also recognize its laughable absurdity.
  • It is not that you’ve forgotten what’s been lost, but whether you are grateful for what you have.
  • It is not that you see life’s ugliness, but whether you seek its beauty.

To close, the following old words from the nineteenth-century Scottish writer, Robert Louis Stevenson, seem right for 2018:

“Give us grace and strength to forbear and to persevere. Give us courage and gaiety and the quiet mind. Spare us to our friends and soften us to our enemies. Give us strength to encounter that which is to come, that we may be brave in peril, constant in tribulation, temperate in wrath and in all changes of fortune, and down to the gates of death loyal and loving to one another.”

What We Do in Private: the Story of a Good Man

Legendary basketball coach, John Wooden, said, “The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching.”

By that standard none of us receive a perfect score. Worse still, we live in a historical moment in which the highest officials in our country don’t even pass the daily public tests. But this story is about someone who did pass. Hearing about him might allow the rest of us to take heart that virtue is still found in quiet places, where a person is willing to give up something great for something good. Where no audience will ever know.

The tale came from an unremarkable man. He was in his late 40s, a guy who blended into the crowd and had a pretty dreadful middle-management job. Not an assertive fellow. His wife had hen-pecked him into submission, inheriting the role passed to her by his parents. You could almost see the peck-marks, the little dents on his flesh. I once asked him about his sex-life and he laughed while rolling his eyes in a way that revealed he hadn’t had sex in a decade or more. If you knew about the less-than-satisfying marriage, you might have told him to “man up.”

Let’s call him T.

T was a religious person, a bloke who took his faith seriously, even if he relied too much on Jesus’s message, “the meek … shall inherit the earth.” Still, he was bright, companionable, and funny. He considered himself Republican in the old style sense of fiscal and religious conservatism, but had friends among Democrats. One other notable quality possessed by T: he knew more obscure baseball statistics than anyone I knew or know.

If you believe a good man is hard to find, he might be your guy. Or not. Too easy, too timid, too unmade and overmatched by some of the challenges of life. Like many in my generation, the Great Depression through which his parents lived left their only son with a tendency toward economy. Not rich, T drove a high-mileage, well-kept car, up in its years. He did much of the maintenance himself. A polyester kind of soul, but not without talent.

T occasionally employed a local handyman to do odd jobs around his home and another property he inherited when his folks died. The worker was a casual acquaintance, not one invited for dinner or coffee. Not even a person T talked baseball with. Just someone T knew and called if work presented itself. By T’s observation, the fellow wasn’t the best jobber, but good enough and available enough and needed the work. In other words, no one special.

Our hero heard the man was in the midst of economic difficulties. I could tell you T was always selfless, but I don’t think so. Yet, on this occasion, he did something pretty remarkable. He counted out $714 (baseball fans will recognize the number*) in fifties and twenties, a ten and four singles; enveloped the bills, walked over to the handyman’s place on a day he was out being handy, and put the money-laden wrapper in the mail box. No message, no name, no return address. He did not want to embarrass the tradesman or make an offer that might be rejected. T needed no thanks or congratulations or celebration of his good deed. He did not expect to know what happened to the cash. Helping another was the end of the story for him. I found out only in passing because I was his therapist. I’m sure T told no one else, including his wife.

We live in a time when every act of greed or self-interest can be rationalized. Where too many “know the cost of everything and the value of nothing,” to quote Oscar Wilde’s definition of a cynic. The yellow-fellow on top doesn’t ask, “What would Jesus do?” Or Muhammad or Moses or the Buddha or any other prophet or deity or role-model than the god he makes of himself and his wallet. No, he is not the creature you hoped your sister would marry, your daughter would date.

We Americans are said to be a charitable people, but charity too often applies only to those of our religion, our party, our tribe. Virtue signaling – trumpeting our piety or generosity – masks the misdeeds we do elsewhere. I guess it has always been so.

Research tells us people tend to look at some others as objects, the homeless for example. We hide ourselves in social fortresses of like-minded contacts who hate the people we hate (if we still consider them human) and praise the folks we like. No new thoughts are permitted, no doubts allowed, and “virtue” takes the form of rage and self-congratulations.

But when I begin to despair of the human condition, I turn my remembered gaze upon T: the most average of men, the most extraordinary of men.

He and others I can name offer me hope. He is not perfect and he would not tell you he did anything special. Just what any good person would do.

Thanks, T.

You gave me something, too.

Both images are sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The sheet music cover photo of a once popular song dates from 1918.

*The number of home runs Babe Ruth hit in his career.

The Examples We Leave Behind: A Christmas Story

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Funny what we remember. My wife recalls a long-ago winter day wearing high heels. A big deal for a 13 or 14-year-old young woman dressed in her holiday best for a Christmas celebration. But that isn’t why she remembers it. Instead, her recollection of stockings and hair styles is an incidental add-on to something more important — more emblematic — of how to live: her dad’s unspoken example of an honorable man in the midst of a storm: the storm of life and a brutal winter day.

December was unusually snowy. Well-organized teams of snow plows didn’t exist outside of Chicago. My wife’s dad, Thomas Henek, thought it best they all take an early train to the family gathering in LaSalle, IL. The ride, he knew, would be safer than dealing with impassable downstate roads in the car. It might take more than an hour to get to Chicago’s Union Station, but at least everyone would be comfortable from there: a two-hour train ride to his mother-in-law’s home. Better than winding up in a ditch, he reasoned, with his 14 and 11-year-old daughters and his spouse Helen.

The gathering itself was unremarkable as my wife thinks back. Soon after their morning train ride, however, the snow began to fall again. When the Heneks made ready for the after dinner departure, they prepared for the worst. Grandma Grigalunas had no place for four extra bodies, and towns without a tourist trade and little manufacturing lacked motels: the unadorned life of a barely middle-class family in middle-twentieth-century America.

Events did not cooperate. All the Christmas celebrants on the route had taken the seats long before the Henek family arrived at the train. The downpour of the heavy white stuff slowed the steam engine’s progress. Past midnight, finally, Union Station in downtown Chicago appeared. Perhaps my wife remembers her high heels because she stood in them all the way. Everyone was beat. The trip — the second excursion of the day — the standing and the time of night had done what you might imagine.

“Wait inside. I’ll grab a cab for the trip home. Then I’ll signal you to come out,” said Tom. The unaffordable ride to the suburbs couldn’t be avoided. The plan made sense, as public transportation would be missing in action even were there no blizzard.

Only one problem. Other people from the station were waiting in the flesh-slicing wind, slush, cold, and falling snow. Accumulating precipitation, by now mounds of it, was everywhere. Almost all the cab drivers knew better than to make an extra buck late at night on such a day — a day they devoted to celebrating Christmas on their own. To the bone tired females inside, the clock was stuck in place, the time as heavy as the dense, wet-white on the ground outside.

Finally an empty cab! The man of the Henek house told the driver he first had to signal his family. They began to move out of the station when a young woman appeared near Mr. Henek. She was soaked-through, as was Tom. She held an infant in her arms and a preschool girl — herself dragging an overweight suitcase — by her hand.

Tom Henek was a man’s man, the best friend to countless buddies, the kind of person you could rely on when fate had you by the shoulders. He’d been a supply truck driver in hostile territory during World War II and lived through the blood spatter of his best friend in the passenger seat beside him, killed by a sniper.

If you knew Tom Henek you understood what he would do when the lady appeared.

Afraid for the baby, Mr. Henek offered the door while the mom and her charges entered the taxi, sent them off, and turned to look behind him.

A few feet away (it is true) one might have heard a bit of groaning. Yet everyone understood: understood who Mr. Henek was, what mattered in life, and what you should and should not do.

Back in the station once again, time was frozen like the weather outside; but the family did step into a cab after another hour. They couldn’t get home to Franklin Park soon enough.

I never knew Tom Henek. He died a couple years before I met Aleta. He was imperfect, as we all are. A gambling addiction didn’t help and a smoking addiction killed him in his 50s. Still, I’ve had the luck of knowing his daughters — one the love of my life — and knowing him by who they are and who our children have become.

How do you measure a life? I wouldn’t even try. As William Bruce Cameron wrote, “not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

To me, this half-century-old story is remarkable and unremarkable, all in one. In a time of great inhumanity, civility and nobility are kept alive by men and women like Tom Henek.

We should be proud to do half as well.

The top photo is called Miniskirts in a Snow Storm, February 10, 1969. It was sourced from the National Weather Service Collection, wea 00957 via Wikipedia Commons. This post adds some detail to one of the episodes of Mr. Henek’s life, as I wrote about it in 2014: Tom Henek’s life.

 

What Money, Sex, Time, and Food Tell You About Anyone

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Many of us spend a fair amount of the day wondering what makes people tick. It is an amusing spectator sport, the stuff of daydreams, and hard to avoid in a world of inexplicable human behavior.

Here’s a little help in performing this pastime.

If you understand how a new acquaintance deals with money, sex, time, and food, you capture a lot about his essence. The same is true of your boss, your date, a co-worker. Anyone.

Let’s begin with MONEY. The dollar takes on layers of meaning beyond commercial exchange. I had a tall, thick-wristed uncle who lifted large checks off a restaurant table with ease and was always first to get to them. He wanted to be the “big guy,” the successful man with a reputation for generosity. He had a wad of bills in his pocket, as you see in a “man’s man” who wants to leave an impression. No pencil-necked, uncertain male need apply. Nor a “coupon-clipper” who, as Mike Ditka famously said about his boss, George Halas, “throws around nickles like (they are) manhole covers.”

Not coincidentally, Uncle Sam had been a poor kid during the Great Depression. I have a photo of him as a young man, banknotes pasted all over his body. Financial independence from his family must have been the making of him, his transformation from a boy to the man he wished to be.

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To this good guy, money was about more than money.

Money and security turn up in the same sentences; so do money and risk taking. If you need a safety net woven out of greenbacks, you won’t take much risk. At least about your finances.

Financial transactions tell you about trust. Will you repay a loan? Can I trust you to manage my money? If I buy your car, will it perform as well as you say?

Dollars are used to influence and control. Will money make you do what I want if your salary bonus depends on it? Might I purchase your vote by making big contributions to your campaign? May/December romances — one spouse younger and the other much older — are sometimes barely disguised financial transactions.

Money has been known to burn a hole in one’s pocket, or so my dad used to say. Can you delay gratification? Are you a spend-thrift or a miser? Money, money, money.

Then there is the question of whether you give any of it away: to the homeless or to charity or even to others in your family. I’ve known parents who stole their kid’s college money, the opposite of a give-away. And then there are the mom and dad who fund a university odyssey long enough for the “child” to get two degrees, but ends without achieving one. The parents wanted the sheepskin more than their not-so-little lamb.

Currency tells you what you value: a big house, building a business, your children’s future. Or maybe a fast car and some nice clothes. Or making the world a better place. Money also tells you how much you value other things in comparison, especially the time it takes to earn it and the activities you prioritize above or below working for your wages.

Riches are a metric to gauge one’s relative standing in the world. We hear a famous athlete saying he is being “disrespected” when his team offers him a salary of only $10,000,000 per year. Objectively, there is no slight. But, if comparable sports heroes are getting $13,000,000 for the same work, perhaps he is on to something.

Money is a tease. At least in the USA, it promises happiness once you have enough of it. Yet most find there is never quite enough to reach this point. They keep looking for more, working for more. Perhaps money, then, is a kind of practical test of your wisdom and understanding of its real value. Johnny Carson said, “The only thing money gives you is the freedom of not worrying about money.” Happiness will take something else. Carson, by the way, was not a happy man.

Larry Adler, the 20th century’s most famous harmonica player (a contradiction in terms) said, “You should always have enough F… YOU money.” In other words, enough money to allow for the freedom to say what you please — end a relationship with a boss or anyone else, no looking back. Too little gelt and most of us experience constraint of our actions; too much and we might believe we own the license to do things others won’t.

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SEX! Beyond the biological urge to procreate — pushing, dragging, and demanding we get naked — sex takes on much extraneous meaning. I’ve already implied some people marry as a thinly disguised exchange of beauty and passion for money and status. Kind of like trading baseball cards, isn’t it? Of course, an older man with a “drop-dead-gorgeous” younger woman also acquires higher standing from her presence in his company. Perhaps this supports Wallace Stegner’s comment about romance not being of much concern to the “60s generation: “In their books, and perhaps in their lives too, love is about as romantic as a five-minute car wash.”

Now think about sexual allure as a measure of control. Some men envision sex as a kind of test — an encounter to determine whether he can bend a woman’s will and dominate her — get her to do what he wants. At the extreme such brutes seek humiliation, homage, and submission — sex that is in no way about love, but something else entirely.

Just as well, for more than a few women the allure of sexuality and the act itself are ways of manipulating men.

Victims of sexual abuse, once well past the violence, sometimes learn to use their attractiveness to control males. The goal is to dictate if, when, where, and how any physical contact will occur, so as to avoid assaults. They are trying to master the terror of their history.

No wonder we read about “sexual politics,” the likeness between political negotiations in the non-sexual world and those in the sexual marketplace. Sometimes sex is about sex, sometimes love, but sometimes resembles two sides across the bargaining table, looking for an agreement — a social contract.

Then comes the matter of intimacy and adequacy. Are you comfortable and unselfconscious in a sexual encounter, or closed off, fearful, deadened and inhibited?

There is a very old joke about the importance of sex in any relationship: if you put a coin into a jar for every time you have sex in the first year of a match, and then remove a coin each time you have sex thereafter, you will never empty the jar! An exaggeration, of course, but the sexual candle tends not to burn with the same intensity late as it did early. Those who can’t imagine this need to spend a little more time on the planet. The process is called “hedonic adaptation,” meaning pleasure usually wanes, whether it is the delight of a new Christmas toy, a new car, or the consuming passion of lovers for whom the cellophane of freshness has not yet been broken.

Withholding of conjugal relations is not unheard of as the pages of love yellow, a passive-aggressive method of expressing anger; a way of conveying, “I’m unhappy,” slighted, or taken for granted.

Regarding adequacy, sex is a “performance” issue. We wonder if we are “good enough.” Too much focus on this, of course, makes performance impossible, especially for the man.

Sex*, like money, takes on a tape measure quality, evaluations and comparisons betraying insecurity and fear of rejection. In other words, self-esteem concerns are intermingled with the reproductive act.

There are people (women more often than men) who want intercourse daily to confirm their spouse still finds them attractive. Again, the fear of rejection or abandonment weighs on the sexual encounter.

Like money, sex morphs into things non-sexual. A shape-shifter.

I’m at a loss for TIME, which is the next topic on my list of items that tell us about personality. I’ll address TIME and FOOD in the coming essay. See you then.

*For additional psychological forms sex takes on, please read this: Sex and Its Functions.

The above image is Sexy Mouth by Nyki m. The final illustration is a Sex Stub from sexualni-pahyi.png: Akton. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Thomas John Henek: Memorial Day Thoughts on the Complexity of a Life

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Though a courageous man, you won’t find Tom Henek’s name in a history book. He represents the “the greatest generation” who fought in World War II (so named by Tom Brokaw), along with some of the deficiencies of mankind — especially those men who lived in mid-twentieth century America. Regarding history books, he would be in any autobiographical one I might write because I married one of his children.

I never met Thomas Henek. He died two years before I fell in love with his daughter, Aleta, who is still my wife. Yet, as I have come to hear stories about him, I think he is worth describing because of the complexity he represents to those of us who might prefer black or white, good or bad, without the grays of human experience. So, if you’d like to know what being a “man’s man” meant back in the day, I invite you to observe one such individual of personal integrity but clear deficits. If you recognize both of these qualities, I hope it will lead you to witness the convolutions in all those around you, including one of the people you know best and perhaps least: yourself.

Born in Chicago in 1910, Tom Henek’s parents emigrated here from Poland. The City of Chicago once claimed the largest Polish population outside of Warsaw. Tom’s father was a well-to-do business man who purchased two empty lots, upon one of which he built his home. Mr. Henek owned two cars when most people didn’t even have one. Prosperity, however, can be a fleeting thing, as the family discovered after their father’s fatal pneumonia in the 1920s, well before the Great Depression.

Tom was the third of seven children, six boys and a girl. Their father’s death pushed the three oldest, all male, to quit school and go to work. Thirteen or so at the time, Tom completed only seven-and-a-half years of formal education. He worked for the same company most of his life, becoming a lithographer with a specialty in embossing fine leather book covers, a demanding job requiring attention to detail.

The family’s original name was Heineck or Hynek, German or German-sounding despite the family’s Polish identity. Tom’s parents changed their surname when anti-German sentiment swept the USA during World War I. Yet the father was not one to hide from predicaments. The parish priest and one of his married parishioners were having an affair and some in his flock, like Mr. Henek, knew it.

Tom’s dad confronted this fake holy man, who warned him to mind his own business. Mr. Henek didn’t. He removed all his children from Catholic schools and placed them in the public school system because the same priest taught them weekly lessons in morality. Tom’s father couldn’t reconcile the idea of this immoral man lecturing his kids about Godly conduct.

His next step further alienated him from the church institution. Tom’s dad went up the chain of religious command, at each stage told he should keep his mouth shut “or else.” Undeterred, he continued his attempt to remove the priest until the church excommunicated this “trouble maker,” not the guilty party. When Tom’s father died the church refused burial in the consecrated ground of a Catholic cemetery.

Henek’s mom had not been a supporter of what she claimed to be her husband’s attack on her faith. The emotional tone of family life changed dramatically after the dad’s demise. The mother continued to believe in the absolute virtue of the church.

Her third born son, Tom, did not. Young T.H. learned his father’s lesson of trying to be just and, though he believed in God, viewed any place of worship organized by men to be a flawed entity. He eventually stopped attending services, putting himself at odds with his mom. “I believe religion and faith in God are good, it’s just too bad people don’t live by the rules. God knows whether you are a good person or not,” he told his older daughter years later.

This youth became a defender of the underdog. He did not hold to his mom’s belief that all things Polish or Catholic were, by definition, the best. Born in America, he said he was American first. He judged no one by the color of his skin, his national origin, his faith or lack thereof. When he saw a fight, especially one person bullying another, Tom would try to break it up. This short (5’6″), stocky (170 pounds,) powerfully built, black-haired man didn’t leave such things to someone else. He took responsibility.

Ironically, the parish priest who had been his father’s nemesis gave a deathbed confession to the priest administering last rites. The latter, a genuinely holy man, reported the injustice done to Tom’s progenitor. The church reburied the elder Henek’s body in the consecrated ground of a Catholic cemetery.

Tom’s working life was not all sweetness and light. The factory’s environment was dangerous and the unhappy men of the factory attempted to unionize.

Although Tom didn’t lead the movement, he joined in, believing the cause just. The bosses alerted the Chicago Police and paid some off in order to get them to break up the picketing that occurred. For his participation, Tom, more than once, earned a billy club to the head and a night or two in jail. Nonetheless, the union prevailed and working conditions improved.

The USA entered World War II in December of 1941 after the attack on Pearl Harbor by Japan. Many young Americans volunteered to serve, Mr. Henek among them, entering the US Army on March 27, 1942. Thirty-one-years-old, he would not have been drafted at that point in the conflict. Indeed, excluded from the infantry, he took the job of “heavy truck driver” transporting supplies and ammunition needed at the front. He married the love of his life, a red-haired beauty named Helen Grigalunas, before being sent to Europe.

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Tom Henek and his best friend in the service took turns driving their truck. One day, with Tom at the wheel, a sniper fired a bullet through the head of the buddy sitting just beside him. Tom kept going. He had drawn the lucky card of survival, the same card whose opposite face pictured horror, loss, and perhaps survivor guilt. His children say he never talked about the War, but his wife told them he had nightmares, as do many who endure battle. Though discharged from the Army on November 25, 1945, those memories lived inside of him for the rest of his days.

My wife’s father smoked cigarettes from an early age, as a large part of his generation did, and enjoyed an occasional drink with his buddies. His other major vice was gambling. Like most gamblers, losing trumped winning, but the young family subsisted and bought a tiny house in Franklin Park, IL where his wife lived for many years after her husband died. Siblings helped to pay off his debts. Yet when confronted about betting and smoking by his spouse he said that since they didn’t hurt anyone else he believed it permissible to enjoy them. Clearly, the face he put on his gambling ignored the family’s modest living circumstances and the imposition on his siblings. Addiction? Entitlement? Denial? Perhaps.

Back then, of course, second-hand smoke effects hadn’t been investigated, but on January 11, 1964 the government issued the first Surgeon General’s Report on Smoking and Health based on more than 7000 research articles accumulated over the years. Moreover, as early as 1957, Surgeon General Leroy E. Burney authorized the official position of the U.S. Public Health Service recognizing a causal relationship between smoking and lung cancer. Thus, Mr. Henek effectively dismissed the danger to himself and the potential for emotional and financial suffering to his family.

Blind spots. We all have them. Some are big, others tiny, but one usually needs an outside perspective to see them clearly, as Tom Henek did not. Look in the mirror and perhaps you will view someone else with a few.

My wife and her sister Tomi remember Henek’s response to the predicament of a neighbor and schoolmate. Let’s call her Polly. This young woman “got in trouble,” a euphemism for out-of-wedlock pregnancy. The lover was the girl’s former teacher, who waited until the 18-year-old graduated to have the affair. Her father (one of Tom’s drinking buddies), told her to get out of the house and never return.

Tom Henek became incensed by his friend’s behavior. He walked over to his buddy’s abode and “chewed him out,” another old expression like “giving him hell.” T.H. told him not to throw Polly out of the home, but rather to embrace and help her in the moment of her greatest need. Tom pointed out the imperfections of his friend and lectured him on judging this teenager in light of his own defects. And, he said, “If you don’t allow her to live with you, I’ll bring her into my place and support her.” The lecture worked and the father of the pregnant girl permitted her to continue to stay with her own family.

That was the kind of person Mr. Henek was. A man who got off a long, late night train ride to downtown Chicago in a winter blizzard with my wife-yet-to-be when she was 13 or 14. Aleta’s mom and slightly younger sister Tomi were there too, returning from a family visit to Helen’s relatives in LaSalle, IL. Cabs were scarce and it took him about an hour before he found one. Just then a young woman with an infant in her arms turned up, a slightly older daughter following behind in the snow drifts, while the mom dragged her luggage with a hand only partially free. She too needed a taxi. Tom offered the ride to the young mother for fear the cold would harm her newborn. No other cab could be expected any time soon. Again, nothing to put on a monument, but something that counts for a lot, at least to my wife and her sister. By the way, my sister-in-law, Tomacine, was named after her dad.

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The father-in-law I never met was the rare person who changed his political thinking based on evidence. A veteran of “the good war,” as Studs Terkel called WWII, Tom instinctively sided with the US intervention in Vietnam. But as the body count mounted growing numbers of protesters doubted the “domino theory” predicting the loss of  S.E. Asia to Communism — the rationale for U.S. military involvement in a small country over 7000 miles from San Francisco. The Gulf of Tonkin incident that justified our military escalation proved as questionable as “Weapons of Mass Destruction” would later be in Iraq. Tom Henek began to change his mind. My wife remembers political conversations in which T.H. no longer defended the aggression. He was a person who knew, too well, the real cost of wartime. Over 58,000 American men and many more Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians, died in a conflict that continued long after Mr. Henek’s death.

Like many males in Tom’s day and even today, doctors are scary people. A man who faced enemy fire did not want to face a friendly M.D. Perhaps he believed “real men” didn’t go to physicians. Tom would not have been alone in such thinking. In the mid-1960s Mr. Henek started to cough frequently and all three women in the home spotted blood stains on his underwear when they did laundry. He ignored his family’s pleas to get checked out. Increased alcohol use did not kill the growing pain. Finally, a man who never missed work was so depleted that he collapsed at home and called in sick. Testing led to the diagnosis of metastatic lung cancer: treatment might delay, but not prevent his death.

It was Christmas time, 1967, and Tom told the doctors who recommended immediate radiation of his desire to spend his last Christmas with his family and be hospitalized thereafter. I will spare you most of the details. He rallied for a time in the approximately six months remaining to him and spent several weeks at home. During the last three weeks, however, while not unconscious, Thomas was bleary-eyed and unable to speak or move. Whether he knew the date or understood what was said to him is unknown. Death came on June 15, 1968 at age 57, the day after his wife’s birthday. His widow Helen cried herself to sleep every night for over a year.

My wife describes her dad as “the kind of man whom everyone wished to have as a friend, the salt of the earth.” Thomas Henek’s funeral drew hundreds, rather remarkable for a man who attended church only if he had been invited to a wedding there, especially in those days when weekly attendance was expected. Nor have I mentioned his sense of humor. For all his flaws, he raised two daughters who became fine and accomplished women and never but once laid a hand on either of them in anger, so horrified was he at the single (non-injurious) spank he gave to his first born’s diapered bottom.

There you have the life of Thomas John Henek: soldier, father, hero, husband, gambler, craftsman, smoker, defender of the underdog, and friend. A man much-loved. Complicated, isn’t it? We are imperfect and human, which is certainly redundant. Care to judge Tom Henek? I’m just grateful to know his story and regret I never had the chance to thank this man for his part in bringing my wife (and, therefore, also my children) into the world.

The top image is the confirmation photo of Thomas John Henek. The next picture is his wife, Helen. The final photo shows Downtown West, Minneapolis, MN, USA, 12/12/2010. The author is Nic McPhee. It was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Man’s Humanity to Man

This will be short, but important to those sensitive to the human condition. It is about our basic humanity and responsibility to respect our fellow-man.

I came upon the brief video below while reading a blog written by a thirty-something New York City area English teacher who is struggling with infertility. Her blog, The Empress and the Fool, is very much worth your attention, especially her recent post, Resolve to Know the Capacity of the Human Heart.

It is the video, however, that is my focus today. I’ve written before about the problem of the street people we see every day in any big city like Chicago. How do we look at these nameless people? What do we do when they importune us for money? How much respect or conversation or eye contact do we have with them? What do we think about them? You can read or reread that post here: On Giving to Street People.

What follows in the video is the answer to all those questions from the perspective of one homeless man who tries to survive in the area of Chicago’s downtown Metra station, the railroad that brings suburbanites like me into the city at the Union Station stop west of the Loop. I will say no more about it, because the dignified man who is interviewed says it all. If you’ve enjoyed anything I’ve written before today, I have a favor to ask of you:

Watch and listen to Ronald Davis:

 

 

Honoring Jim Lustig: Speech on Behalf of the Mather High School Class of 1964/65 and the Zeolite Scholarship Fund

Most of you now know that the Zeolites, our 1963/64 high school park district softball team, had a reunion on January 1, 2000. But there were just a few people who knew about it from the start. The adjacent lunch table in Chicago’s Mather High School cafeteria included female friends who’d been told of our plan back in 1963, the year that the idea was hatched: to meet on the front steps of the Museum of Science and Industry in 37 years time. That group included Carolyn and Cathy Bell, Olivia Wasserman, and Judy Maloff.

We got back in touch with them in late 1999 as the reunion day approached, and later let them know that the Culligan Corporation was giving us a grant of $2000 to create something called the Zeolite Scholarship Fund. Some of them even sent us money in support of the project. But, before too long I got an email out of the blue from a man who probably had never heard of the Zeolites and whom I hadn’t seen since 1965. He’d been told about our college scholarship philanthropy for graduating Mather seniors by Carolyn Bell and contacted me to ask if he could help. Soon thereafter we received a very large check from him, one of many that were to follow. To date, he has contributed nearly $5000 to the Zeolite Scholarship Fund, making him our third largest individual contributor. The two guys ahead of him, as you might expect, are Zeolites.

In the 12 years of our existence, that is the only time we received money from someone we didn’t solicit and whom we hadn’t told what we were doing; someone who just happened to hear about us and thought giving money to the project was a good idea. That someone is Jim Lustig, and the story I’ve just related tells you as much as you need to know about the behavioral definition of the word generosity.

Of course, Jim is a University of Chicago Medical School graduate and a highly respected pediatrician. I could tell you much more about his professional accomplishments* — about the recognition he has earned, what he has written and what he has done — but our attachment to Jim is more personal than that. At least four members of the Zeolite Scholarship Committee have gone to him with our own medical concerns or seeking advice about a loved one. Jim is always there, always helpful. Sue Leff Ginsburg will tell you a little bit about her contact with Jim. Then I will say a few more words.

Left to right: Barbara Orloff Litt, Pat McAvoy, Sue Leff Ginsburg, Jan Kozin Gordon, and Joan Lustig

Sue Leff Ginsburg:

In 2006, when our high school graduating class had its first “mini-reunion” dinner at Via Veneto, I was sitting next to Gerry telling the story of my new granddaughter, who was a preemie (premature birth) and wouldn’t eat. My daughter and son-in-law could not find a doctor here who could help and they were so worried and frustrated.  Gerry suggested I ask Jim’s advice, as he was a pediatrician. Now, I knew Jim in high school, he was an acquaintance. So I made my way to his table and started picking his brain. In his very calming, comforting tone, he informed me of the Milwaukee Children’s Hospital and their eating clinic.  My daughter, with Jim’s direction, was able to find doctors who not only had dealt with this before, but had a proven plan to solve it.  Not only did Jim calm two worried parents and a crazed grandmother, but in the process, I made two wonderful friends in Jim and Joan, Jim’s wife.

Thank you, Sue. All of us who have consulted Jim have had the kind of experience Sue just described. To me, Jim is the embodiment of the best qualities of a physician as they were represented on TV and in the movies back when we were growing up in the 1950s and 1960s: someone who is very smart, someone who is very experienced, someone who is calmly reassuring — quietly confident; someone who you know will do everything that is required to make sure that things turn out well.

Jim is the guy you want in your corner. He is the guy you want on your team, whether it is your softball team, your scholarship team, or your medical team. In a difficult moment, he is the person you want by your side any day and every day, any week and every week, any season and every season.

And so, Jim, we have an engraving for you. It reads as follows:

JIM LUSTIG

“A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS”

FROM THE MATHER CLASS OF 1964/65 AND THE ZEOLITES

MAY 4, 2012

But there’s more, as they say on TV. Last year some of you will recall that I gave you a short German history lesson, or at least, a history of the Zeolites in German class at Mather High School. Jim was there in German class, along with most of the Zeolites, and people like Bob Ferencz and Michael Kaplan. As I said last year, after four years of German study we’d learned, perhaps, only 10 words; and seven of those words were swear words! But happily, one of those words has to do with Jim! No, not one of the swear words.

The word is “lustig,” which means cheerful or jolly. Now, my guess is, that it is not every day, Jim, when someone comes up to you, slaps you on the back, and says, “You know, Jim, you are a ‘jolly good fellow.'” But, today isn’t every day and we are about to do just that. So, all of you, please join me in paying tribute to our good friend Jim, by singing, “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow.”

The top photo is Jim Lustig. In the second photo, left to right, are Barbara Orloff Litt, Pat McAvoy, Sue Leff Ginsburg, Jan Kozin Gordon, and Joan Lustig (Jim’s wife). These pictures were taken at the Mather High School Class of 1964/65 “Mini-Reunion” Dinner at Sabatino’s Restaurant on May 4, 2012. They come to the Zeolite Scholarship Fund courtesy of Michael Kaplan.

*Jim is the Program Director, Asthma/Allergy of the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin. He is also Professor of Pediatrics (Allergy/Immunology), Medical College of Wisconsin and Member, Children’s Specialty Group.